If you had asked me five years ago what it meant to die well, I’d have given you a different answer—not drastically so, but still different. I probably would’ve mentioned something about a “meaningful death” (as long as you didn’t ask me to define that) or dying with dignity. I might have added that Christians die well when they trust in their Savior and His promised peace.
These aren’t necessarily bad ideas or explanations, but they came from a rather naïve view of death. It wasn’t that I was completely ignorant of death—I had been highly affected by the deaths of people close to my heart and had stood helpless on the periphery watching death impact those around me—but since working at a senior living facility, I’ve come to know death differently. Although our community has a younger and more active population that results in a lower mortality rate than many similar places in the area, there still is quite enough that the specter of death is never too far out of mind.
I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true that each death is unique. I’ve watched one of our residents “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but I’ve also seen a newly-converted man who closed his eyes with a smile and a happy sigh. Or there was the long-time saint who, despite knowing all assurances, still confessed a trembling fear as death became imminent. Another resident was strong, bold, intelligent, and dignified – until the last couple of weeks when both her body and her mind rapidly wasted into a hollow shell. Some deaths were anticipated, and the individual slowly ebbed away; others were unexpected, the sudden darkness after the flip of a light switch.
So, who died well?
To be honest, I can’t really say that any of them did. I want to say at least that the professing Christians died well. I really do. But some part of me simply can’t look at the wax-like ashen face, stiffened limbs, and red-eyed family members and call it a “good death” or “dying well.” It seems there’s something fundamentally wrong with this picture.
Maybe the idea of a “good death” is just a myth, a label we’ve created to help us cope with this great jolt. The notion of being able to die well gives us hope that perhaps we can shuffle off this mortal coil with strength and dignity, that perhaps death isn’t so bad after all. But there is something wrong; all is not well. Death grates on us because—as much as culture labels it as “natural” and either sweeps it under the rug or parades a mockery of it—the truth remains that we were not made for death.
Sometimes as Christians we rush over the event of death in our eagerness to get to the good part: the true final (and never-ending) chapter. Makes sense. The revealed glory is incomparable with present sufferings. And we don’t want to become so mired in gloom that we reject the joy of salvation. While we should avoid a morose obsession with death that neglects the promise of life, we still must not forget that death is not trivial. Death actively opposes life. Death is our enemy.
Death came with the Edenic curse as the wages of our sins. Hebrews speaks of the fear of death binding us in lifelong slavery.1 To be sure, Christ has freed us and in place of the spirit of slavery has earned for us the spirit of adoption.2 Yet it took His own death to do so. It took the destroying of the one who has power over death.3 Even still, death has not become our friend; it remains our enemy. Death is not simply a part of life; it is the antagonist of life.
During the time I have worked with the elderly, I have witnessed many reactions to death. Some residents avoid the subject at all costs; others talk of it candidly. Once death has occurred, some family members withdraw to grieve quietly, while others mourn publicly and loudly. Responses range from acceptance to denial, regret to outrage, busyness to paralysis. Taken together, this variety of reactions has impressed upon me the seriousness of death and its disruptive opposition to life.
For all the differing circumstances of those residents’ deaths—as well as the opposing aftermath—the split-second change was the same for all of them. No matter what path led to that point, the ending of life was an irreversible moment in time: they all died. How they lived, however, is a different story entirely. Some lived well; some did not. Maybe that’s what we really ought to say when we look at “dying well”—that they lived well even in the shadow of death.
How can we do this? How can we live well in the face of our enemy, death?
First of all, even though we still view death as our enemy, it is a defeated enemy. Our Champion faced death and swallowed it up through His resurrection. Moreover, this Victor ensures our resurrection; we too will one day reign over death.
But for now, the battle still rages. We still feel the pain of death. And we still cling to the hope of dying well.
Part of the reason we yearn to die well is our desire to create comfort for ourselves even in death. Our mistake is in believing we can muster up this comfort in our own strength and works, as if we were the ones who conquered death. Rather than seeking comfort in our ability to achieve a good death, we should entrust ourselves in death to the same comfort we have in life—namely, that “I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ… has set me free from the tyranny of the devil… by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”4
Death is an enemy, and so we must not pretend otherwise. However, death is a defeated enemy, so we need not fear its sting. We were not the ones to vanquish death, so we must not look to our own strength to face it. Our Conquering King has killed death and secured our resurrection unto life, so we should gratefully praise Him, crying out, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”5
As we follow the Great Shepherd who has already trod the valley of the shadow of death for us, we hold tight to His promise that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”6
Even though the idea of dying well might be debunked, as long as we can profess, “It is well with my soul,” we are strengthened by our Lord of Life to face our enemy with the comforting knowledge and assurance of our victory.
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Thank you Sarah for this splendid comforting message! As a hospice volunteer, we never “get used to death!” Death is an enemy but thanks be to God that the resurrection of Jesus took the sting away and believers in Jesus will “live forever!”
From the middle ages to about the 17th century, Christians looked at the way people died as a way to determine their fate in the afterlife. People writhing in pain or raving in dementia might be seen as attacked by demons. The interpretation of others’ deaths became political. Enemies of Martin Luther, for example, relished news of a “bad death,” while friends promoted the idea that he died peacefully like a saint. This sort of thing made big international news.
In her classic history of the Christian literature on the art of dying, Nancy Beaty shows how Christian humanists of the Renaissance aspired to keep their wits and die a stoic death of rational self-control. Calvinists shifted focus to the life of the dying person and whether it was exemplary with signs of moral and material achievement indicating their election. Anglican Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Holy Dying” was the climax and end of this medieval tradition, emphasizing that it is every day of life that should be focused on in light of death and eternity rather than a late life retrospection or prospective attempt to determine one’s eternal fate.
Very insightful – Thank-you
Thanks, Sara! You’ve helped me process an experience I’m having right now with a friend who is in hospice. May God continue to bless you in your work!